Dr. Peter F. Penner defended yesterday with success his habilitation thesis: "Missionale Hermeneutik: Biblische Texte kontextuell und relevant lesen" (230 p.) at the Károli Gáspár University in the Reformed Church.
In two public lectures on Missional Hermeneutics: Its possible place in Biblical interpretation and Lokale Theologien, Kontextualisierung und die Rolle der Missionalen Hermeneutik he argued for the importance of reading scripture through a so-called "missional" lense. His main aim was to provide a corrective to a result-oriented, pragmatic missiology. On the question what contribution this approach provides to a new mission praxis he responded that it enables first of all a denominational dialogue, which is very important in the context of Central and Eastern Europe, where there is so much division and jealousy. It helps to focus on a "common mission praxis", because of the centrality of the concept of missio Dei. He continued that a missional hermeneutik also helps to focus on the Kingdom of God. Penner further argued that by reflecting on and evaluating what others have done in mission, and by assessing what the real issues are in the context of Central and Eastern Europe a new mission perspective for the church in mission could be born.
1. Assessment of the thesis
Dr. Penner observes that since the World Mission conference in Edinburgh 1910 significant changes have taken place in the discipline of Missiology, influenced by developments in world history and world Christianity. Not only the mission praxis, but also the theology of mission underwent significant changes. The preparation and training for missionaries focused almost exclusively on the praxis of mission as part of practical theology, since the middle of the 20th century sociology and anthropological studies were added to the curriculum, at the expense of the biblical, historical and systematic theology disciplines. These developments did not fail to impact the theological quality of the discipline of missiology (pg. 1-3).
A strong tendency had come up in the praxis of mission to focus on the quantitative result of mission and evangelism through the church growth movement. The focus increasingly turned to questions of culture and context which led to an awareness of the variety of expressions of Christian faith, and sharp theological discussions on what the concept and goal of mission is. As a result missiology today deals not only with the praxis but also with the theology of mission (pg.3-4). The churches in the “sogenannten Ostblock” have joined these missiological discussions only recently.
These new developments in missiology led to a focus on a contextual reading of the bible text. Previously a “biblical theology of mission” used only selected biblical texts to define certain mission themes from a biblical perspective. This new approach builds on the research work of bible scholars, experimenting with new hermeneutical approaches in which the local or global context is emphasized, especially for the two-thirds world. Penner rightly observes, that “die meisten osteuropäischen Versuche der missiologischen Arbeit mit dem biblischen Text gehen leider noch nicht über die bereits vorliegenden westeuropäischen oder nordamerikanischen Vorbilder hinaus und blicken nur gelegentlich auf Arbeiten aus der Zwei-Drittel-Welt.“ (pg. 5)
In the light of these developments the central question of Penner in this habilitation thesis is clearly stated as not to develop a biblical mission theology, a missional hermeneutic: to assess “inwieweit eigentlich eine missionale hermeneutic notwendig ist, … um dem biblischen Text gerecht zu werden, der im Missionskontext geschrieben und an eine missionale Gemeinschaft adressiert wurde.“ (pg. 6).
Penner is thorough in his analysis and balanced, fair and honest in his evaluations, e.g. as he states that the church of the Reformation “verpasste es auf die missionale Stimme des biblischen Textes zu hören” (pg. 156). It is important that throughout his study he keeps the focus on both the role of individual and of the community in God’s mission, which connects a strong “evangelical” focus on the individual and an ecumenical focus on community.
Peter Penner defines missiology as the discipline which earlier was called mission theology and in the Middle Ages still was referred to as propaganda fidei as “lebendig und muss die christliche Botschaft dem Kontext gemäß abwandeln, ohne dabei das Evangelium prinzipiell zu verändern.” (pg. 29) He attempts to clarify the concept of mission by dealing with a number of related concepts in the New Testament which could clarify its meaning. However, the concept “missional” is not clarified. Sometimes mission theology and missiology are used as synonyms, sometimes as differing from each other. The use of the term “Osteuropa” seems to lacks consistency. Sometimes it is used in the political way of the former “Ostblock”, sometimes in a geographical way as part of Central and Eastern Europe.
2. Originality, actuality and significance of the thesis
With his habilitation thesis Dr. Peter F. Penner offers an important contribution to the field of missiology in that he provides a corrective to the so called managerial missiology, the pragmatic, result-oriented missiology, which has a weak biblical foundation. These tendencies are also present in Central and Eastern Europe (pg. 182). His emphasis on the involvement of the missional community in the missio Dei “weitet sich der Horizont der Einzelnen und der Gemeinschaft und relativiert sich der eigene Anspruch in der eigenen Sache der Mission, ohne dabei die Absolute Gottes zu relativieren“ (pg. 178).
The significance of the thesis lays also in the fact that his approach to dialogue with text oriented hermeneutical approaches as the historical-critical method and with social hermeneutic approaches as the liberation theology with the purpose to assess how these can be used for a missional hermeneutic, opens new avenues of interaction between missiologists and biblical scholars.
The fact that Penner seeks to introduce the discussion on the missional hermeneutic in the academic discourse of biblical scholars and missiologists of Central and Eastern Europe is important for the role of the churches in the post-communist societies society. Penner convincingly shows how important this approach is for developing a relevant contextual theology for a post-communist context as he deals with the themes of poverty and richness (Pg. 106ff, 145, 146 and 149), reconciliation and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (pg. 143), but also with the responsibility of individual and community in God’s mission and the role of the Holy Spirit.
The candidate shows academic courage in addressing sensitive and important issues like the problem of social injustice and the call for an orthopraxis in relation to solidarity with the poor! He also displays academic modesty as he does not present final conclusions but invites both biblical scholars and missiologists to enter into the discussion on developing a missional hermeneutic, which is “weniger eine Methode, vielmehr geht es darum die Intention, die der Text tragt, herauszustellen und sie bei der Interpretation einzelner Abschnitte nicht zu vergessen. Eine solche Weise des Lesens des Biblischen Text wird nicht nur die Exegese bestimmen, sonder auch die darauf bauende Theologie und durchdringt damit alle Bereiche der akademischen theologischen Arbeit! (pg. 179). The candidate thus manages to link theory and mission praxis in a dynamic way.
This study into the need for a missional hermeneutic is also significant for the Post-Christianum discussion in missiology as it sheds new light on the life of the early Church and on what it means to be a minority church instead of a majority church.
Penner thus makes an original contribution to knowledge in its field which is suitable for publication
3. Structure of the thesis
The task Penner sets himself to do in a clearly structured manner is to prove the thesis of the necessity of a missional hermeneutic (pg 7).
In the first chapter he deals with the historical–critical method, as a hermeneutic to build on, but which method he expands through a “missional” interpretation using keywords of the Acts of the Apostles in order to define the concept of mission and their field of meaning.
In the second chapter he questions the liberation theology hermeneutic as a representative of a social hermeneutic whether it contains useful elements for a better interpretation of the biblical text and whether in this way it could be part of a missional hermeneutic. He focuses on the theme of salvation for the poor which plays an important role in the liberation theology, using again texts of the Acts of the Apostles. Then he deals with the theme of holistic peace in order look into the question of contextuality in liberation theology, using a case study of evangelical groups in the former CIS and their wrestling with their context and identify in relation to peace service.
In the third chapter of his thesis Penner deals with a synthesis of the historical critical method and a missional hermeneutic taking into consideration the social hermeneutic, especially that of liberation theology (pg. 8). He convincingly proves “dass der biblische Text selbst von der Mission Gottes und der Metaerzählung erzählt, dass der Text missional ist, weil er zur Mission anspornt”. In this chapter he studies the meaning of the Holy Spirit in Acts as the Spirit of mission as well as the mission prayer of the messianic community and the Jerusalem council. It is remarkable that Old Testament texts are interpreted in a missional way and thus become a model for the readers. He deals thus with the missional hermeneutic in the context of the missiological discussions on the biblical text (pg. 7).
In this study Penner seeks not only to bring missiology and the biblical sciences together in an interdisciplinary way, but also to present and introduce a discussion in Central and Eastern Europe in and in continental Europe which till now had been limited to the Anglo-American context (pg. 9). Since the concept of mission and the approach to the biblical text in Central and Eastern Europe is often different, new contextual impulses and unique contributions from this region could be given to the discussion on developing a missional hermeneutic elsewhere.
The candidate demonstrates a thorough knowledge of literature relevant to its subject and general field. He also shows an ability to exercise critical and analytical judgement of that literature.
The candidate consistently follows the path he sets out to do, thoroughly analysing and comparing and entering in debate with a wide variety of German and English sources of different continents and Christian traditions which shows clearly how he is at home in this subject. He is as much aware of the ongoing debate in the Gospel and Our Culture Network with scholars like George Hunsberger and Darrell Guder as he is of the discourse in the BISAM study group of the International Association of Mission Studies. With an academic openness combined with great diligence and German Gründlichkeit he fulfils this task.
At the same time he does not hide his own position and bias, drawing the reader in a gentle but sometimes provocative way into the discussions, offering a wealth of material for further study in the well documented footnotes, which wets the appetite for entering deeper into the discussion. At the same time he succeeds in keeping his study focused, making clear his decisions on the choices he had made in limiting his thesis.
Although it is not the main focus of his study, it is a pity that not more sources are used to illustrate the relationship to and the contextualization of the study into the Central and Eastern European context. Obviously, the task ahead for scholars of Central and Eastern Europe is to translate the discussion on the missional hermeneutic into their own context, and to relate it to their own biblical and missiological discourses in the vernacular.
This study displays a mastery of appropriate methodology and theoretical material and the ability to communicate this complex field in clear way to its readers. Its interdisciplinary method extends to both the biblical sciences and missiology. Throughout the methodology used is made explicit, like e.g. words studies used to define the concept of mission show that the instruments and the approach of the historical-critical method is helpful and necessary, but also the limitations of a certain methodology are presented clearly (pg 40).
The thesis is worthy of being the basis of a publication, not only in German, but also in English, and Hungarian and in some of the local languages of Central and Eastern Europe.
Some minor corrections are needed:
pg. 158: David Bosch, Transforming Mission is published not in 1992 but in 1991.
pg. 180: 2nd par: The local perspective seems to disappear, only the regional and global remain.
passim: Stász J. should be: Szász J.
passim: Szegények mindig lesznek valetek should be …………veletek.
7. Conduct and Presentation
The present study meets internationally recognized standards for the conduct and presentation of research in its field. The formal presentation can be considered as an excellent model. The references are always exact. The thesis is written in a good and readable style, and has a clear structure, closing each chapter and thematic treatment with a clear summary. He clearly manages throughout to show that the academic discourse he embarked on is of great relevance for the praxis of mission, without falling into pragmatism. Moreover, he succeeds in shedding new, fresh and sometimes surprising light on well-known passages through the method he employs. He also succeeds to keep the attention of the reader when he maps out what may be unknown territory to him or her.
8. Remarks, comments and questions
1. The title of the study is formulated in a rather general way: “Missionale Hermeneutik: biblische Texte kontextuell und relevant lesen“ whereas throughout the texts and illustrations are taken from the books of Acts. It is stated that the method can be extended to other books of the Bible. How could a missional hermeneutic be applied to the reading of an OT book like Leviticus or a NT book like Hebrews?
2. As Stephen Neill supposedly stated: “when everything is mission, nothing is mission”. On pg. 230 the candidate states in relation to the challenge of a dialogue on the missional hermeneutic that it can serve to overcome the crisis in mission theology and praxis but also in the biblical hermeneutic. “Dabei besteht die Gefahr, Mission so allumfassen zu präsentieren, dass sie sich am Ende ganz verliert, oder ihr aber einengend eine geschützte Nische zuzuweisen, in der es vor allem um die pragmatische Praxis der Mission geht. Beides wäre fatal nicht nur für die Mission der Kirche, sondern auch für die gesamte Theologie als Wissenschaft.“ In what way could this danger be avoided in a situation where the concept of mission is already very broad, and almost identical to all activities in the church?
3. The explicit intend of this study is to initiate a discussion on developing a missional hermeneutic in Central and Eastern Europe. When the candidate would be asked to design a research project with scholars from different Christian traditions and different countries in this region, with what three main issues would he start? How to go about setting up such a research project in a situation where divisions even within Christian traditions are so sharp. How would he explain the relevance of this project to the churches in order for them to support and bless this project?
On the basis of the above assessment I recommend the thesis to be accepted and to allow the candidate to proceed to the public lectures.
Budapest, 18th February 2012.
Prof. Dr. habil Anne-Marie Kool
Central and Eastern European Institute for Mission Studies
of the Károli Gáspár University in the Reformed Church.